You might be Army Strong, but not from the start.
Step off the bus at the Army Receiving Station and you notice those around you.
Showing up in the dark leaves lots to see.
These are your people, the ones you’ll bond with, stay in touch with the rest of your life, and plan those big reunions when you get old.
Except it didn’t work out like that.
It never does with replacements and fill-ins, and those are the people you showed up with.
A few of the big guys, big and jiggley, stayed with the main group a few days then disappeared when they learned they couldn’t keep pace with Army Strong.
They needed extra attention, the kind you don’t want.
If you saw them again they were with another platoon after their conditioning stint.
The Army conditioning platoon was a place to avoid.
The other name for it was fat boy platoon, FBP
You won’t know about the fat boy platoon until a graduate shows up in your barracks one day.
He’ll look like a trainee the same as everyone, but he’d been in the Army longer, which meant he knows things the rest still feared.
Fred White showed up in B-4-3 and told us all more than we wanted to know about the Army. He was practically a veteran compared to us.
Fred said he could cruise through the rest of boot camp because nothing he would do the rest of his life could be harder than fat boy platoon.
He seemed tough, a hard version of what we would all turn into. He talked the talk like he was born to it.
During training exercises we found out if he could walk the walk.
A big part of Army training seemed to be climbing up on things higher than a playground slide, and jumping off.
Crawling under things that might make you bleed if you’re not low enough, which is why it’s called low-crawling, was also popular.
The first march Fred White took with his new platoon included lying down on top of a rope stretched across a small canyon, or big ditch. The idea was to pull yourself across this chasm with a rifle strapped to your back.
The Drill Sergeant demonstrated correct form, then the incorrect, but allowable, form.
Correct form: balancing lengthwise on the rope, hooking an ankle, and using your arms to pull across inch worm style.
Incorrect, but allowable, form: Pulling yourself across while you hang below the rope with your legs wrapped around it.
Everyone started on top and everyone finished underneath.
Everyone except Fred White.
All the troops on the march wore their web gear, a suspendered belt with hooks to carry things. And an M16 slung over a shoulder Army Strong style.
Fred White started on top, lost his balance and swung underneath to pull across like everyone before him had done.
Except by the time he got to the middle of the ditch he was too tired to continue.
The conditioning platoon didn’t cover this.
One Drill Sergeant stood below him and cheered him on by screaming insults about his mom and dad.
Fred White took offense. He was tired, stuck and didn’t know what to do. No one knew what to do if someone stalled out.
The drooping rope hung about ten feet above a sandy bottom. If you dangled by your hands you’d have about a two-foot drop into the sand.
When Fred White got stuck in the middle we figured he’d just drop. The whole platoon hoped he’d drop and not so something we’d all be punished for. Then we’d have to punish him.
Those were the unspoken rules.
The Drill Sergeant made Fred White cry.
Part of their training was knowing how to push buttons and Fred had more buttons than most since he’d already been in the FBP.
“I can’t move,” he cried.
He’s the guy who knew the army best, and he’s crying?
“Pull you fat bastard, pull. If you don’t pull yourself across this gully I’m walking that slack rope out to kick your ass across. Do you hear me? I will use your weapon to push you across. You don’t want that, so pull. Pull across,” the Drill Sergeant said.
“I can’t. I can’t. I tried. I can’t,” Fred White’s emotional voice shook like a frightened child trying explain the fire that burned his house down.
“Make yourself do it. Force yourself. That’s what you are here for. Be Army Strong. Do it. Do it now. RIGHT. NOW.”
Fred White looked bad. While he was on his rope the other trainees had pulled themselves across all the others stretched across the gap. He was all alone out there.
More Drill Sergeants gathered below him.
“No-ho-ho-ho. No-ho-ho. What do I do? Tell me what to do,” Fred said.
The lead Drill Sergeant paced underneath him talking to himself.
“It’s a rope. Everyone goes across the rope. How hard is that? Been doing this five years and now this?”
“I can’t hang on. I’m slipping. What do I do?” Fred screamed.
“Drop, god dammit. Just drop. You are pathetic. Drop. Drop now.”
The Drill Sergeant expected Fred White to release his feet, hang by his hands, and drop the two feet to the sand.
He waited for him so he could give him an earful of just how pathetic he was. We all expected Fred White to release his feet and drop.
Except Fred White released his hands and feet at the same time.
He fell with a flat back, arms and legs straight out above him.
He fell with his M16 slung across his flat back, dropping ten feet on his M16 like a fat bomb.
Laying motionless in the sand didn’t stop the Drill Sergeant.
“You are going to clean that rifle. Do you hear me? There will be no sand in your weapon. If it has one scratch from this miserable performance I will use your scalp to buff it out. Do you hear me trainee? I am talking to you. Do you hear me?”
Fred White was out. He couldn’t hear anything.
The Senior Drill Sergeant slid down the bank and double-timed to the body in the sand.
He knelt down and loosened Fred White’s web gear. He lifted his head gently and said something. He gave him three quick slaps across the face.
The first aid treatment took hold.
Fred White jumped to his feet, spun toward the bank and ran, executing the most dramatic risen-from-the-dead move since the original Terminator.
Here was a guy out cold, getting slapped around, then leaping up and running.
Since his web gear was loosened, Fred’s pants started sliding down while he tried to jump up on the bank.
He jumped and slid back, jumped and slid back, until the Drill Sergeants boosted him up to the hands of the other guys waiting to pull him out.
Instead of shame, he acted like he didn’t break down on the rope.
Now he was the best soldier in this man’s Army, Army Strong all the way.
He didn’t even care when others called him Fat White instead of Fred White.
He’d put it all behind him until he climbed the obstacle course cargo net to the top of a platform.
And couldn’t get down…again.
He needed more Army Strong.
It showed up later, the Army Strong he didn’t want.